Getting a job offer represents the exciting culmination of what’s often an exhaustive effort. And while you’re thrilled and relieved when the offer comes in, it’s important to remember that the most difficult part of the job search process is just beginning—making a good decision and negotiating the best employment deal you can.

Once an offer has been extended, the employer is eager to get your thoughts and response. For the candidate, though, the ironclad rule is to never accept an offer on the spot. Your response should include thanking the hiring manager for the offer, expressing excitement about the opportunity, and asking for some time to digest the information and clarify any questions you may have.

On a practical basis, you’ll want to ask for a specific period of time during which the offer stays valid and understand when the employer needs your decision. Be prepared to negotiate to maximize the time, but get a clear agreement on the deadline. Here’s an example of how to initially respond to a job offer: “I’m very pleased and excited to receive your offer; thank you. I’ll need some time to review it. I’m sure there will be some questions and points to finalize. How long will the offer remain in place and when do you need my decision?”

Between the time when you receive the offer and you need to give your decision, there are three essential activities: analyze and evaluate the offer; get all your outstanding questions answered; and decide if you will negotiate. Company, job and compensation usually represent three of the most important criteria that are used when considering an offer. You can add others based on your individual needs.

When thinking about the company, fit is one of the most important indicators of success in a new job.  Most hiring managers can do a very good job of evaluating a person’s technical skills. The more difficult thing to assess is a candidate’s fit with the company culture. Similarly, when you’re going through the stress of a job search it’s easy to rationalize that you can adapt to any culture. But that’s often not true, especially if the company has a thick or pervasive culture in which an employee must conform—or fail. Be sure to give proper thought and consideration to fit and culture. The time and costs associated with your commute and opportunities for continuous learning are other aspects of the company portion of the offer to think about.

As you assess the job itself, try to determine if it’s one that will challenge you and lead to professional growth. Is it the type of job you’re truly going to enjoy? Evaluate how much you are able to contribute to the greater good of the new organization. The more you can contribute, the greater the likelihood of success, career growth, and job satisfaction. You should also attempt to assess the risk of failure in the new role. Is the new job going to place professional or personal demands that could put you at risk of not doing your best work?  Have you over-sold your ability to be successful in the job? In addition, you’ll want to make sure that the title is in line with the job and that it will positively impact your career path down the road. It’s important to be mindful of both short and long-term implications.

Regarding (total) compensation, you’ll want to figure out if the salary and bonus plans are at or above market. If not, does the potential for growth make up for it in some way? Be sure to scrutinize health and welfare benefits and compare them to the market. Vacation, time off, and comp time policies are always important and often the packages are negotiable. Factor into the total compensation equation any benefits such as a car or gas allowance. And, in today’s economy, a key important component may be the corporate relocation program. It’s easy for all the benefits of a great job offer to be neutralized by a weak relocation policy. Study it in detail to determine how it will affect you financially.

Finally, don’t be bashful about other things that are important to you. Flex time, telecommuting, the IT equipment you’ll be provided, or other components that will help you be more productive should be on the table.

Once you’ve decided you want the job, it’s time to get down to the specifics of negotiation. In the next post, we’ll provide some techniques and principles.